The love was always there, you know. Perhaps the search was for the right expression. I’m talking about my love for the mountains, which found profound expression in trekking. Once discovered, what followed is an oft-discussed topic among the people who know me. Averaging about a trek a month, I am your regular corporate slave, whose pursuit for serenity makes him look beyond the ‘fun’ vacation in Thailand or that relaxing stay at a beachside resort.
This time, the occasion was my birthday, which falls on 1st April. Now, if we’re done with the jokes on that…
So, the ‘designated’ annual leave at work came along and the mountains called. I looked for a trail marked enough to trek unassisted, but it became clear soon enough that solo treks were unlikely in April. All decently high trails were snowed out, and unless Chris McCandless had gripped your imagination, you would rather get a guide for help!
Finding my guide (and some surprises)
I had my eye on Bhrigu Lake as a decently high weekend trail; however, research took me to a forum which said:
The words kept ringing in my mind. I was aiming for April 1 – 3 and this guy made it clear that the Bhrigu Lake trek was almost impossible for the whole of April! I made enquiries for a guide. No guide I knew in Manali agreed! It sounded just crazy enough for the occasion, I thought to myself with a wry smile.
On the fourth degree of separation from me, I finally found someone who agreed. Qualified with three courses in mountaineering – BMC, AMC and an MOI! It’ll be fun to pioneer the Bhrigu Lake trek this season, he says, and suggests Alpining it! In a classic case of Chinese whispers, what I had planned as a 3-day itinerary got communicated to the guide as a two-day affair. As if it wasn’t crazy enough already!
I hired my ice axe, rolled up my clothes and packed my trek boots. Manali was where I was meeting Gulshan, my guide. I was told there would be some equipment waiting for me once I reached Manali, because this would not be just another climb.
Had it not been for the state transport Volvos, you could easily half the number of treks I have managed in the year gone by. The routine was – less sleep the day before travel, sleeping while travelling overnight to the trek head, and hitting the trail next morning. This time I took the HRTC Himsuta heading to Manali. It’s funny the sheer number of times I have travelled this route, yet had no memory of it! I’m always in deep slumber all the way.
Gulshan met me at Manali and we drove to Gulaba (poor man’s Rohtang, basically). I was introduced to my equipment there. There were snow-boarding boots for insulation and snow-proofing, and snow racquets to ensure we didn’t go un-walkably deep into the snow.
All inclusive (mattress, racquets, sleeping bag, food, clothing, tent, fuel), my bag weighed about 25 kg. Welcome to the world of self-sustained Alpine trekking! To make things interesting, a lens had fallen off my sunglasses, so now I would be snow trekking without eye protection!
Day 1: One step at a time (and a mystery visitor)
Climbing. Just blind climbing. You might think there was a flat patch up the ridge – well er… no. We were clear of the tourists in 10 minutes, and then it was just us, two whackos and a whole lot of white! After 8 km of climbing, we got to a place called Raudi Kholi. Climbing the Dauladhars, with Pir Panjal as the backdrop and Manali in between… I could spend hours sitting there, if there was place to sit that is. It was just soft, powdery snow till as far as the eye can see.
With darkness approaching, Gulshan headed forward as I struggled with a body still acclimatizing from getting to 3,800 meters from 0 meters within 18 hours. He moved forward to pitch the tent, and I trudged behind him, following his trail. Light was fading fast, and I could spot only the headlamp Gulshan placed on top of a rare boulder near our camp site.
Raudi Kholi in April is nothing more than a flat patch of snow. We had about 2.5 hours’ worth of fuel. We melted snow for water, warmed up the packed chow mein we had brought along, and parked for the night. There should have been no humanity in at least a 15-km radius from us that night. Yet, I distinctly heard two (mind you, two) footsteps crackle in the snow, walk by my side of the tent… and not go back. My first reaction – perhaps Gulshan was taking a leak. I turned. He was next to me, fast asleep. I didn’t have the courage or the strength to do much about it. I waited for any further sounds but heard nothing, at least till I dozed off.
Day 2: Reflections on self at the Bhrigu Lake
A bear maybe, Gulshan “reassured” me ironically. Unlikely I thought. Those were two feet and too measured to be those of a bear. Anyhow, we literally had a mountain to climb ahead of us, so that’s how much attention it got from me. Nutella on some bread, molten snow, and we were good to go.
It was about 6 km still to the lake. At last 2 km of respite in the form of a flat patch. The views were mesmerising! The white engulfed us wholly. My climbing was slow, but consistent. After a point, I was counting steps before I took a breather, which was no more than standing still for a minute.
One of the critical lessons trekking has unraveled for me is the power of a step. Retrospectively, it is mindboggling the kind of distances we cover while trekking with those steps, aligned one after the other, on the right trail. Life expects much the same, perhaps. And as with life, during every trek, there comes a point where you stop and ask – what’s the point of all this? There is an answer, you know. Sometimes it comes along the way, sometimes it dawns on you at the top, and sometimes, when you’re through. But the answer does come along.
Gulshan encouraged me just the right way, staying visible but distant. The racquets were helping, I thought, but boy were they heavy! With the racquets, snow boots and the snow stuck in the whole setup… I didn’t want to know how much weight I was carrying per foot.
We reached the Bhrigu Lake. The dimple was snowed out. I stood there, looking around. Physically stripped and thrown at the mercy of the white that surrounded me.
My memory dredged up patches of something I had read long ago.
We found rocks a little to the right of the lake and sat down to have our fill. Table with a view, if there ever was one, I chuckled to no one. Shitidhar, Deo Tibba, Hanuman Tibba, Friendship, Ladakhi, and a host of virgin peaks put up a show beyond expression.
Was it worth it in the end?
We headed down the same way for another 14 km. Reaching base camp along the way, I arrived with one racquet in my hand and one on my foot. I clearly had had enough of them! Off my feet and onto my back. Wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or miffed. The edge of the snow boot was now eating into my calf. What started as redness on the muscle turned to purple and then to black. The only way out of the pain was through.
I trudged along and we finally reached civilization. We disturbed a romantic couple on our way down, I think, but I couldn’t care less. Lips chapped black, a peeling nose, a blackened calf, and a serious case of snow blindness were my trophies!
Why? Was it the idea of massaging my ego by doing what others termed impossible? The idea of pioneering something? The allure of my own, and only my own, company? All of these in minor ways drove me, I think. None of it mattered though when I walked down to that snowed out dimple on the mountain and looked around me. What mattered then was what the mountain spoke and I heard what it said in no uncertain terms. Yet, what I heard cannot be written in words, for it wasn’t spoken in words either.
Humbled, I headed back with newfound respect – more for the mountain, and some for myself.